It seems that science journals are in a race to see which can be the most penitential for apologizing for past publications that don’t comport with modern morality. To use my Cultural Revolution analogy, they are competing to see who can hang the biggest “I was a bad and hurtful journal” sign around their necks. Nature just entered the competition with the article below, which you can read for free.
It seems that the journal’s biggest no-no, and cause for apology, was publishing the work of Francis Galton (1822-1911), a Victorian polymath who made big contributions in statistics, anthropology, forensics (he invented a way of classifying fingerprints), and other areas. But he was also an advocate of eugenics, and his name has been removed from buildings and other venues in the last couple of years. Although Galton’s views are abhorrent to modern sensibility, none of them, so far as I know, actually led to any eugenic actions that wouldn’t have been carried out without his writings (Hitler didn’t need Galton, and eugenics wasn’t practiced in England).
Though the word “damaging”, referring to Nature’s publications, is used 9 times, and they evoke the “harm” of their journal 6 times, it all seems to me a bit hyperbolic. Of course Galton was a racist, but is this an accurate statement?:
Galton’s scientifically inaccurate ideas about eugenics had a huge, damaging influence that the world is still grappling with. The idea that some groups — people of colour or poor people, for example — were inferior has fuelled irreparable discrimination and racism. Nature published several papers by Galton and other eugenicists, thus giving a platform to these views.
Irreparable discrimination and racism? I hope not! But let’s accept that Galton was a eugenicist, which he was, and that his views may have influenced other eugenicists, and move on to other mea culpas:
This is not just a problem in Nature’s deeper history. In more recent years, we have also, to our shame, published some articles that were offensive or destructive, or attracted criticism for being overly elitist. “The scientific journal, back in the day, was the mouthpiece to a very privileged and highly exclusive sector of society, and it is actually continuing to do the same thing today,” says Subhadra Das, a science historian and writer in London who has researched scientific racism and eugenics.
Since they cite none of these articles (“elitism”, really?), I can’t judge this statement. Yes, Nature is considered one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world (Science is the other), but is that the kind of “privilege” and “exclusivity” they’re talking about? I don’t know, because they give no examples. (Save for Galton’s papers, citations of transgressing articles are scant—a common problem with this form of apology.)
There will be some redacting of the past, too:
We know that Nature’s archives contain numerous items that are harmful and can be upsetting. But, like other scholarly publishers, we think it is important to keep all of our content accessible, because it is part of the scientific and historical record. It is important for researchers today and in the future to study and learn from what happened in the past. That said, we are developing a way to alert readers that our archive contains articles that do not represent our current values and would be unacceptable to publish today.
What are “our current values”, and what if they change? Can’t we count on the readers to know whether an article is acceptable or unacceptable to publish today? Does Nature really need a Pecksniff to trawl through its archives to single out offensive articles and highlight them? And who will be the Pecksniff, the person who enforces “our current values”?
They don’t neglect colonialism, either, though again no examples are given:
The journal matured as Britain became the biggest colonial power in history — by 1919, the British Empire spanned roughly one-quarter of the world’s land and population. In their contributions, many scientists editing and writing for Nature endorsed the views of white, European superiority that drove this empire building. An air of imperiousness, imperialism, sexism and racism permeates many articles in Nature’s historical archive.
As it does all of British literature from that era! Who will apologize for that? And is there a need to?
. . . Nature’s archives also include harmful contributions from the fields of ecology, evolution, anthropology and ethnography, which were inextricably linked with colonial expansion. Another 1921 editorial reflected imperialist and racist views, reporting on a session at a meeting of what was then the British Association for the Advancement of Science “devoted to the discussion of the ways and means by which the science of anthropology might be made of greater practical utility in the administration of the Empire, particularly in relation to the government of our subject and backward races”. There are numerous other examples in which Nature published offensive, injurious and destructive views, cloaked in the veil of science.
They do mention one book review that was pretty sexist, written by editor Richard Gregory (1919-1939), and two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, but eve back then Nature criticized the anti-Semitism:
In the 1930s, the journal printed two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, a physicist, who wrote of the “damaging influence of Jews in German science”. At the time, Nature had taken a strong position in opposition to the rise of Nazis in Germany, which eventually led to the journal being banned there. Nature implied in an accompanying article that it had invited one of Stark’s contributions to show readers how shocking his words were, but it nevertheless exposed a wider audience to antisemitic views.
So is that a net bad or a net good? Nature opposed the Nazis and highlighted one article that denigrated Jews, but only to show that it was “shocking”. Is this something the journal needs to apologize for?
One more example, but the articles aren’t cited or linked, so we can’t judge for ourselves:
Nature has published hurtful articles even in the past few years. One was an inaccurate, naive editorial about memorials to historical figures who committed abhorrent acts in the name of science. The editorial was damaging to people of colour and minority groups, and the journal apologized for the article’s many faults. That experience exposed systemic problems at Nature that we are working to correct, including the lack of diversity among our editors and a failure to acknowledge the journal’s role in racism. The editorial you are reading is part of our attempt to acknowledge and learn from our troubled deep and recent past, understand the roots of injustice and work to address them as we aim to make the scientific enterprise open and welcoming to all.
So Nature has hung this big editorial sign around its neck, and promises to do better. But it’s already doing better, as are all science journals and science departments. The question I am asking, I guess, is given that morality is improving over time, and has come a long way in the last hundred years, to what extent do we need to apologize for what was said by our predecessors? Yes, it’s fair to point out that bad things were done in the past, but how instructive is that since everyone now knows that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry are wrong? And if they don’t, Nature’s apology won’t fix them
In the end, I see the Nature piece not as wholly performative, but nearly performative, since they are already policing themselves.
Matthew has a different take, as given in these tweets. He’s concerned with the fact that Nature, in going to an open-access policy, is now charging authors huge amounts of money merely to publish their articles. In other words, the journal may not be sexist or racist, but they are still money-gouging capitalists who impoverish scientific investigators.
Not a word about Nature’s commercial function, and how this – its raison d’être – contradicts the kind of diversity and openness the Editorial favours, because of its page charges and the fees they extract. Fix that fundamental flaw, or this is all talk. https://t.co/6LjMZcYhfA
— Matthew Cobb (@matthewcobb) September 28, 2022
Publisher Springer Nature has announced how scientists can make their papers in its most selective titles free to read as soon as they are published — part of a long-awaited move to offer open-access publishing in the Nature family of journals.
From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper open access (OA) in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions. It is also trialling a scheme that would halve that price for some journals, under a common-review system that might guide papers to a number of titles.
Soon you won’t have the option of paying: you will have to pay to have your articles published. This money will soon be coming out of the pockets of investigators—either out of their grants (funded by taxpayers) or out of their own pockets. And, as Matthew said, this policy is against the policy of diversity and openness favored by the journal, as it penalizes scientists with the least funding, more likely to be people of color or peoople from lower socioeconomic classes that could use their grants to do research instead of pay a journal exorbitant fees to publish their work.
In comment #3 below, Lysander calls our attention to the financial results of open-access publishing, embodied in this video: